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The coster of London who succeeds at his calling will often be found to possess a shrewd business head. He may not have mastered the arts of reading and writing; but, while perambulating the London markets, his quick eye readily fixes on whatever will turn his penny. When
times are good-.e., when goods are cheap-it is his delight to attend Covent-garden, Spitalfields, or Billingsgate, rather late in the morning, and after the regular tradesmen are served, to clear away the remnants
at a cheap rate. Thus it often happens that dealers who are obliged to purchase before a certain hour, find themselves in competition with sellers who are able to retail at a profit goods equal in quality to those in the shops, but at a reduced rate. The coster, however, is a good servant of the poor, and of the lower middle-class generally. He can live on smaller profits than the shop-keeper, and when a glut occurs in the market, he quickly distributes goods over which his more powerful rivals would not care to trouble themselves.
Golden-lane, then, is the metropolis of the nation of costers; and Mr. Orsman, the voluntary evangelist of the province, is a potentate whose mere word goes forth with more authority among the natives than the strongest official menaces. China-yard is, perhaps, the most famous rendezvous of the street-sellers, and our engravings represent the place in its every-day aspect, both within and without doors. Very recently we passed some hours with Mr. Orsman and his chosen constituents, when we saw sufficient to verify the correctness of reports previously heard concerning the great evangelistic work in progress. It was Monday evening; and after seven o'clock the mission station began to show signs of life. Into one room persons of the costermongering type were passing to pay hard-won deposits into the penny bank, and the business transacted proved the existence of thrift and foresight among the poor, engendered by Christianity, such as was not known in Goldenlane a dozen years ago, and which the majority of our friends would not have supposed any agency could have awakened. Poor women came with their scanty savings, while many pence and small silver coins were brought by children. In one instance a man over seventy years of age was found making a provision against the time when he would be entirely laid aside by infirmity. As a supplement to the bank, "The Emily Fund" lends capital, free of interest, to female street sellers. This charity is named after, and is established in memory of, the late Countess of Shaftesbury. To linger in the ante-room after the bank business has closed is to see divers eager applicants for this coveted boon, which effectively teaches the poor to help themselves.
But what chiefly concerns us to-night is not anything belonging to banks or charities; not even the devotional meeting in the large room, where fervently earnest prayers by poor women and others are offered, and some hymns are sweetly rendered-we have to attend a meeting of costers in one of the lower apartments of the mission house. This interesting assembly is composed of the members of "The London Union of General Dealers," who meet here this evening for the first time. The reason why the men have found their way into this hospitable shelter will need a word of explanation. Late in the autumn of last year the vestry of St. Luke's purposed issuing an edict forbidding the costermongering fraternity any longer to trade in Whitecross-street; and probably the vestry would have carried out its great idea had it not been for the timely advice and representations of Lord Shaftesbury and Mr. Orsman. It may be remembered that when news of the parish magnates having relented gained currency, the extravagantly-expressed joy of the poor people astonished many to whom the good things of life come too regularly for them always to remember their gratitude to the Giver. Out of the excitement of that time sprang the benefit and
protection club referred to above. Many of the men would have liked to identify this club with the mission, had not circumstances fought against them. One of the principal promoters of the movement was a
far-gone atheist, and, as a speaker explained, this gentleman gave his compeers distinctly to understand that, "he would 'ave nothink wotever to do with the business if the meetins wos 'eld at a misshun'all." Thus
for the sake of securing the valued services of this enlightened coadjutor, the little society turned its back on Mr. Orsman's station, and took up its abode as a club at a public-house hard by. Evil consequences followed. The atheist and his employers soon disagreed, and not without reason; for he used them ill, and served them badly. Thus after having their books and general business plunged into a state of confusion, from which it will require both time and patience to extricate them, the deluded costers were glad to accept Mr. Orsman's offer to enjoy the use of a room every Tuesday night free of all charges.
Entering the meeting with Mr. Orsman, we find a goodly number already gathered, and others arrive until the room is crowded. It is a costers' business meeting purely and simply. Though no intoxicants of any kind are allowed to enter, a conveniently situated cupboard is seen to be amply furnished with ginger-beer, lemonade, and cake; and these refreshments are served out by a stout eustodian as fast as the gentlemen present choose to hand over the reasonable charge of a penny for a bottle or a slice respectively. As Mr. Orsman merely looks in as a visitor, he takes no active part in the proceedings; but his countenance and advice are so eagerly sought and valued by the men that he cannot easily get away again. Before the business meeting begins, a running conversation is kept up, the ruling genius among the costers being a thick-set, cleanly-looking dealer who answers to the name of Wilkins. Wilkins appears to wield a certain authority, besides which he is a man who enjoys considerable popularity among his order as a speaker in public and as an adviser in general. When Wilkins, distrusting his own judgment, requires counsel's advice, he removes his hat, rises to his feet and addresses Mr. Orsman. It is true that he lays no claim to the possession of oratorical gifts, and so exemplifies a humility which must be quite affecting to his more lowly neighbours; but as we are informed in significant tones, Mr. Wilkins can speak his mind when "the shoe pinches." As there is a general talk about barrows, Mr. Orsman takes the opportunity of explaining the working of the excellent club connected with the mission. It is an immense advantage to a street-dealer if he can command a vehicle of his own, and therefore, it is now shown how the needful capital of seventy shillings may be saved. Seventy shillings did Mr. Orsman say? He must please remember that barrows, even, have "gone up." Nay, he is informed somewhat authoritatively by Wilkins and by others who second that gentleman's affirmation, that, "A good barrer now cost four pound, and from that to four pun' ten." There is one enviable individual present who has actually paid "seven pound" for his barrow; and the proud smile of self-appreciation, not to say of condescension, with which he communicates the fact, shows that the aristocracy of street traders understand something of the respect due to themselves and to position in life. The "seven pound barrer" has expensive appliances for carrying fire-wood not required by ordinary traffickers.
"But Wilkins, you are chairman of this meeting, take your place," says Mr. Orsman, putting an end to minor discussions. The gentleman addressed now steps to the front, and, with a glass of ginger-beer on his right hand, proceeds to business. That Wilkins is a power among costers is self-evident. The company drink in his words as coming
from one who, both by native ability and by acquired talents, is qualified to occupy the position of "cheerman to this society." In quite a straightforward manner, the difficulties into which the club has been plunged by its late atheistical secretary are explained, and Mr. Wilkins vents his indignation in a manner calculated to show that the laws against libel are not respected by his order. When anything hits exceptionally hard it is welcomed by vociferous acclamations, such as shake the house, and obliging the chairman to take breathing time, also allows of some attention being given to the ginger-beer on the right. Nor is the applause less deafening when anything pleasing is spoken,— as for example, when Mr. Wilkins proposes that "the Herl" be requested to honour the society by becoming president, and that Mr. Orsman also honour them by becoming treasurer. But there is one sombre difficulty lagging in the back-ground, as yet not alluded to-a secretary is wanted! If the poor fellows crowding this room only possessed those master gifts with which secretaries are supposed to be endowed, how hotly would this office be competed for with its certain emoluments of threepence per quarter from each member. Alas! not one coster can aspire to the position. Situated thus, the only alternative is to look to Mr. Orsman to supply the deficiency, provided it be understood that the men will insist on the gentleman's accepting their fees. In a few minutes, amid loud cheers, it is announced that a resident in the district, who will pay his salary back to the funds of the society, will serve the men as desired.
We now rise to leave a meeting which, on the whole, has been quite orderly, and the entire absence of improper expressions has told much in favour of the Christianising influence of the Golden-lane Mission. Not that there have been no obstreperous persons present to provoke cries of "cheer, cheer," until Mr. Wilkins necessarily exercised a chairman's authority; we merely say, the proceedings were as orderly as most other meetings where numbers of men associate for business purposes. What also appeared striking was the unlimited authority wielded over the men by Mr. Orsman. It was the homage of real respect, paid by hard-working fellows, who, on the average, are probably as honest as traders of a higher class. Yes, their homage is paid to one whose life of voluntary selfsacrifice commands the admiration and gratitude even of those who may not be able to understand its spring.
In the meantime, places like Golden-lane and Whitecross-street, to be well understood, must be seen under different aspects. They must be seen on the Sabbath as well as on week-days. Like all other great centres of population London is a city of contrasts, but the contrasts are perhaps more striking on Sunday morning than at another time. The quiet of rural lanes scarce surpasses the stillness of many streets around Cheapside when the Sabbath dawns. Alive with the hum and eager competition of commerce during the week, these places are as forsaken on Sundays as if a panic had seized the traffickers to occasion their precipitately retreating like an affrighted army. Emerge from these avenues of dormant warehouses, and step into one of the Sabbath markets, and how changed is the scene! It is as though the scattered builders of Babel, having re-united, were there in confusion of tongues disputing for mastery. Take places like Whitecross-street and